Complexity and simplicity in Theory of Change reviews

©FAO/Luis Tato

Complexity and simplicity in Theory of Change reviews

5 min.

The Theory of Change (ToC) has emerged as an important instrument in many evaluations of projects and programmatic interventions.

A ToC typically records the causal linkages between a chain of activities, results, outcomes and impacts, underpinned by their underlying assumptions. This type of framework is often developed at the design stage of an intervention and followed throughout its implementation.

As projects and programmes are implemented in real life, with all its complexity, the ToC needs to be reviewed on a regular basis. This can be particularly important when interventions come up against unexpected challenges, such as the outbreak of COVID-19, civil unrest, price fluctuations or natural disasters. Evaluators can incorporate any such factors into the ToC review process and bring an external perspective. In this way, they often help project teams to identify ways and means of reorienting project implementation. Thus, the ToC review often serves as “reality check”.

The benefits of ToC reviews

Although a number of ToC review guides have been circulating in the evaluation field, to date, there has been little formal analysis in this area. It is commonly acknowledged that ToC reviews are a beneficial practice, but official agendas often tend to overlook their importance to project delivery. ToC reviews can be carried out at different stages of project implementation, with midterm reviews the most common. Where a project does not have a ToC, it can be helpful to construct one in order to understand the project’s deliverables and expected outcomes.

The ToC review helps to better capture a project’s underlying assumptions and identify the rationale behind the success or failure of specific interventions. Organizations can use these reviews for learning purposes and to enhance feedback loops among project personnel. ToC reviews can also help to reorient projects to improve their implementation or inform the design of follow-up interventions. Evidence of those benefits remains insufficiently systematic, however, and there is a need to better document practices on the ground.

How to perform a ToC review

One of the main challenges of the ToC review is the complexity of the systems in which projects and programmes operate. These often extend beyond project boundaries and can be affected by broader policies and norms. At the same time, interventions and ToCs are often designed in linear and simplistic ways. In such cases, ToC reviews attempt to circumvent the linear approach and measure project progress with systems thinking that better captures its complexity.

Donors, meanwhile, usually tend to prefer evaluations that give a more focused and fragmented picture of project implementation, particularly, when a logframe-based approach is being used. For many projects, the limited resources dedicated to evaluation do not allow for more intensive or comprehensive ToC review exercises. Consequently, evaluators focus and report on a fragmented picture of project reality. The crucial skill of an evaluator for ToC review purposes, therefore, is their ability to extract the most essential and practical recommendations for improving a project’s course – in other words, their ability to grasp a complex system in a simple way.

The ToC reviews should also create scope for exchange between the people and entities involved in a project. If carried out in an open way, they can unearth the true nature of the challenges of project implementation. With the right set of questions and participatory and inclusive facilitation processes, they can also be helpful in addressing potential conflicts or identifying needs that would not have been otherwise expressed. As far possible, ToC reviews should bring together key project personnel, stakeholders and beneficiaries in a facilitated reflection process.

What happens after the ToC review?

Ideally, the ToC review process should be reported in the official evaluation documents, including recommendations for project enhancements. In practice, it is not always easy to implement desired change. The recommended improvements of the ToC review may, for instance, challenge the underlying assumptions or performance indicators of the logframe. In such cases, project donors may often be reluctant to accommodate any major changes, especially if they are embedded in a larger-scale programme that has its own established evaluation framework.

Changing the logframe and indicator systems that have been fixed at the project outset can, therefore, be troublesome, as the lifetime of the project and, consequently, progress reporting are limited. Whether the ToC reviews change it or not, however, it can still yield benefits in terms of learning and be embedded as a crucial element in the monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) system.

The way forward

As recent EvalForward discussion has shown, there is a clear need for a greater exchange of views on ToC reviews and how to practise them. The evaluation community needs to make more effort to document current ToC review practices and how lessons from them have been taken up by the interventions in question. Illustrative guidelines, including sets of questions to support the process, could be of help. Moreover, further insights into good practices and the inclusion of relevant stakeholders in the ToC review process are needed to find out how ToC reviews affect the performance of projects and programmes.